Sportscaster Walter Lanier “Red” Barber was born on Feb. 17, 1908, in Columbus, Mississippi.
Barber’s first professional play-by-play experience was announcing the Cincinnati Reds’ opening day on the radio in 1934. That game was also the first major league game he had ever seen.
In the winter of 1938-’39, Larry MacPhail, who had been hired as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, lured Barber from Cincinnati to New York to give the city its first radio coverage of big-league baseball from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
Red had a smooth voice with a slight Southern drawl. His radio signature was a warm “This is the ol’ redhead.”
In the hands of Red, radio sports announcing became an art. Although he had a Southern accent (as did Mel Allen, who later broadcast the Yankee games), he was quickly accepted in Brooklyn because of his ability to make fans feel present in the park.
A milestone in Barber’s career was when Ebbets field was lit up for baseball’s first night game on Aug. 26, 1939. Barber also announced the Dodgers game on Aug. 20, 1945, when shortstop Tommy Brown became the youngest player to homer in the big leagues. It was in the seventh inning of a game with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Brown was 17 years, eight months and 14 days old. Barber always rolled a carton of Old Gold cigarettes down the field’s scoreboard screen when a Dodger hit a home run. He decided Brown was too young to smoke so he added the carton to a donation going to a Veterans hospital.
Barber also announced the game in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
The Dodgers did not rehire Barber after the 1953 season. He went over to the Yankees to announce their games from 1954 to 1966, when he was dismissed by Yankee president Mike Burke.
In 1961, while announcing for the Yankees, he called Roger Maris’s 61st home run, which broke the single-season record long held by Babe Ruth.
On March 3, 1968, Barber reminisced for a New York Knickerbocker story about his first day on the job in New York:
I look back some twenty-nine years — back to Opening Day at Ebbets field in 1939. That was my first ball game in Brooklyn.
The Giants were at Ebbets Field that Opening Day in ’39. It was also Opening Day for radio play-by-play in New York. Until then the Yankees and the Giants had blacked out radio — they were terribly afraid of it — and the hapless Dodgers had been forced to follow suit. But Larry MacPhail … killed the anti-radio ban. Now it was the two big clubs over the river that followed — both had to broadcast.
Before the game began, Bill Terry and Leo Durocher, the two managers, went on the air, which is pretty good booking; that is, if you like talent.
Barber died Oct. 22, 1992, in Tallahassee, Florida. He had been one of the first broadcasters inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.